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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

Small Business: Managing remote workers

Managing employees who work at home requires companies

Managing employees who work at home requires companies to rethink how they interact with employees and create ground rules to maintain healthy and productive working relationships, experts say. Credit: iStock

Technology has made it possible for employees to work just about anywhere, and they are using that flexibility in greater numbers.

Some 13.4 million people worked at home at least one day a week in 2010, up from 9.5 million in 1999, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.

Chances are if you aren't employing a remote worker now, you may be in the future. The practice requires companies to rethink how they interact with employees and create ground rules to maintain healthy and productive working relationships, say experts.

"The success of the telework program will be hinged on designing the management to be seamless and identical to the practices used for someone working in their bricks and mortar facility," says Michael Amigoni, co-author of "Managing the Telecommuting Employee" (Adams Media; $14.95) and chief operating officer of Kansas City, Mo.-based ARO, a provider of call center and business processing services.

Teleworkers shouldn't be segregated into a separate pool, he notes. They should be evaluated on the same metrics, by the same managers, as in-house workers, says Amigoni, who consults with companies on telecommuting programs.

Communication is key in making the relationship work, notes Linda Berke, president of Taylor Performance Solutions in Farmingdale, which offers skills development and leadership training.

"You shouldn't be afraid to overcommunicate with somebody," says Berke, who has a team that includes remote staff. Lack of communication can make teleworkers feel left out and isolated, she says.

Don't just email: Set a regular schedule of communication and stick to it, by phone, email, video conferencing or Skype, says Berke. Keep teleworkers in the loop on meetings, staff changes, etc. And don't rely solely on email. Berke recommends setting one-on-one coaching sessions at least monthly, preferably in person.

If you can't do it in person, pick up the phone. Talking establishes better rapport between the manager and remote worker, says Colleen Garton, of Garton Consulting Group, a Tampa, Fla.-based management training and consulting firm and co-author of "Managing Without Walls" (McPress; $37.95).

Set clear expectations: Establish guidelines for teleworkers, including the hours they will be available and your expectations for them, she says. Consider having them do a weekly status report on their tasks, what got done and didn't, says Garton. "It helps the manager a lot to understand how this person is planning their time."

You may also want to have them come into the office occasionally to feel part of the group. Jason Aptekar, chief executive of Westbury-based Mithril Technology, a business and technology consulting service, tries to do that at least twice a year with a remote worker he has in Oregon.

The worker also talks with a supervisor daily and notifies the supervisor when he comes on and off his shift, he notes.

"Communication flow is critical," says Aptekar.

So is ensuring that information is safe with remote workers. Be aware of what information they're storing or have access to, particularly if they're using their own mobile device.

You may even want a policy in your handbook stating that if they use their own device, the company retains the right to secure and manage it for the protection of its intellectual property, and if they leave, the company maintains the right to wipe company information off, he notes. "Make sure these devices maintain the same standards as devices used in the physical location of the business."

Key steps

1. Train managers on managing teleworkers.

2. Build strong team relationships.

3. Promote an organizational culture that supports teleworkers.

4. Have well-defined performance measures

Source: The Conference Board: The Incredible Disappearing Office.

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